Cement is a common ingredient found in various building materials because of its strong adhesive properties. When mixed with water, it acts like incredibly strong glue. While dry, powdered cement remains generally harmless. Once mixed with water, however, the caustic adhesive has a low pH and becomes severely dangerous to the skin. Construction workers, builders, bricklayers, tile-layers and others with direct contact with wet cement often suffer from cement burns.
Cement workers put themselves in constant danger of skin problems, from quickly healing burns to long-term skin problems. Cement burns are similar to those caused by lye or other chemicals and can result in several symptoms, including black or green-colored skin, blisters and hardened dead areas. The calcium oxide in dry cement binds with the hydrogen in water to form calcium hydroxide, an alkaline compound that draws the moisture from human skin and continues to create burns long after the exposure ends.
Chemical burns occur without immediate symptoms; they're often not noticed until after the burns worsen. The greatest danger occurs when cement burns skin in or near another construction injury, which may worsen that injury to the point of amputation. Even after removal of the cement, the burns worsen and begin to show blisters, dermatitis, and purple, green or brown skin. These symptoms can become evident within hours, or it may take days to reveal. It often takes so long for the patient to notice the burns that skin grafts are a commonly required treatment and often result in long-term scarring.
If you notice the beginning of a cement burn or even suspect one, seek immediate medical treatment; inform the medical professional that you suspect a cement burn and not a heat burn. Doctors suggest that you pour water over the skin, which gives the cement a different moisture source. Others even add vinegar or citrus, both acids, to help neutralize the alkaline properties of the cement. Final treatment ranges from ointments to amputation, depending on the severity of the burn. When the burn reaches deep into the body -- affecting muscle and even bone -- doctors may consider amputation. More severe deep skin burns require skin grafts to allow for the removal of the entire affected area.
To prevent cement burns, keep your skin away from cement. That means wearing heavy-duty clothing, gloves, face masks, goggles and boots. Take the time to tuck jeans inside boots and tape the top of the boots down so cement cannot get inside. For skin care, wash with a PH neutral or a mildly acidic soap to balance the caustic and alkaline nature of the cement. If acidic soap is not available, stick with common household acids like citrus or vinegar mixed with water. Never use abrasive scrubs or sponges to remove cement because it allows the cement to penetrate even deeper into your skin. Stay away from gels, particularly petroleum jelly, since they hold the mixture against your skin and increase the chance of worsening burns.
- United States Department of Labor; OSHA; Preventing Skin Problems from Working with Portland Cement; Edwin G. Foulke, Jr. (Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA)
- Locks Law Firm; Cement Burns; 2008
- Scudder & Hedrick PLCC; Cement Burns
- Occupational Health & Safety; These Problems Aren’t Set In Stone; Chris Trahan et al; March 2007
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